I often ask incoming students “What do you want out of your 4 years in college”. Replies are generally like: become a great programmer, engineering, mathematician,…., get a good job/career, gain deeper understanding of subjects, do exciting project/ research/ innovation; get good overall education, become a better professional, help for entrepreneurship career, make good friends, enjoy life, etc.

 Most of these can be grouped in two basic expectations from college education:

  •  It provides strong platform for good career opportunities
  • It provide environment to grow socially and as a person/individual.

 Let us discuss each of these. While in school, particularly class XI and XII, the main outcome you, your parents, and your school are looking for from school education is admission into good colleges/universities. And for that, performance in exams is what maters the most – whether in board exams or competitive exam. Hence, you, rightfully prepare for mastering the factual and theoretical knowledge that is tested in these exams.

The situation changes dramatically when your desired outcome from college education is good career opportunities. And to achieve this you need to take a fundamentally different approach to education than how you approached it in school. Let us use getting jobs as the primary career goal, though the argument will apply to other types of career opportunities as well.

Companies give you good jobs, and compensate you well, if you have deep knowledge in areas in your discipline, and possess strong skills for applying that knowledge to develop solutions – since it is these skills which generate value for the companies. Any good company, when it comes to a college for recruiting, thoroughly checks how well the student understands his/her subjects, and how well has (s)he developed the skills of applying the knowledge for problem solving. Top companies will do as many as 3 to 4 rounds of interview to assess various facets of this – e.g. in computer science, they will try to understand how deeply you understand programming, data structures, algorithms, operating systems, and how effectively you can use this knowledge for solving problems. Unlike exams, which are conducted on a large set of students and are limited in what they can assess, due to the thorough one-to-one interviews they conduct, companies do figure out how deeply you understand the subjects, and how good are your skills and capability.

So your goal for education in college is not to get marks, but to develop the skills, gain the knowledge and understanding of subjects. Marks are going to be a bye product – any good university will have decent assessment methods to ensure that if your understanding is good, you will get good grades. I have not met any student in my life who has good understanding and skills but has poor grades – may not have the best of grades, but still good grades. And inevitably these students do well in career.

 This is the main shift incoming students need to make in their approach to studies – study with the purpose of understanding and building skills, not for getting marks, as this understanding and skills is what will get you the jobs/career you seek. There are two other direct implications of this in how you approach your studies in college:

  1. Use of unfair means in assignments, exams etc will be counterproductive. When you copy an assignment, say from a friend, then it is the friend who has done the learning from it, not you. A universal truth is that nobody else can learn on your behalf – only you can do your own learning; even the richest of people have to do their learning themselves. So, you must do your work yourself and must not resort to “short cuts” like borrowing from the Internet, your friend, as these short cuts hurt you in achieving your goal, besides also taking you down the slope of moral decline.
  2. You have to work hard and put in sufficient effort. Learning takes effort and time – nobody can learn a new skill or obtain mastery in something without putting in hours and hours of practice, reflection, studying. Anybody who thinks otherwise is fooling him/herself. There is simply no other way to learning, but to learn, and that takes both physical time, and mental and physical effort.

So, to achieve your first goal, these two must be cardinal principles guiding you during college life, and your approach towards education should be to build skills, deepen understanding, etc.

Second overall goal of these 4 years is your social and personal growth. This is the period that will have the maximum impact on your life. Growth here means that you are a much better person, have an improved understanding of things, people, friends, world, … improved social and people skills, a better friends support system….., improved ability to enjoy things like art, music, dance, literature, and other things that bring joy and happiness and satisfaction to a personal’s life, etc.

For this goal, ensure that you are actively engaged with the people around you, with the college you are studying in, various activities like reading, watching films and discussing them, debating with friends about contemporary issues, existentialist issues,…. in learning and playing different sports, instruments, arts,….

These two goals of college life will often conflict. While they do often conflict, you must not pose it as an “either-or problem”. You actually do not have to make a choice between the two – you can and must achieve both. There is sufficient time to do both – assuming that sleeping, eating, commuting,… takes 12 hours each day, you still have about 85 hours per week available to you – this is plenty to achieve both goals. But this requires you to develop two meta-skills, which will serve you not only in these four years, but also in life: Balance, and Discipline.

In college, you have more freedom than ever before – in fact you have more freedom than you will have after college life. And you have two somewhat diverse goals. To use this freedom properly so it helps you achieve both your goals, it is imperative that you develop some discipline and sense of balance. Balance means that you spend your effort and your energy judiciously among the different activities to ensure that not only are your growing professionally/academically but also personally.

Discipline means that if you plan to do something, you are able to do it. So, if you want to study x hours every day or week, or go for a jog in the morning, or play computer game only for one hour per day or only during weekends, you are able to follow it. Most students are smart to make decent plans. Yet, they often end up not following their plans because they have not developed the discipline to execute their own plans.

To end, college life has two basic dimensions: grow professionally through the education a college offers, and grow personally through the variety of outside-the-class opportunities that colleges offer. Go after both – and you can achieve both through discipline and balance.

Note: This is based on the welcome speeches I gave to incoming students at IIIT-Delhi as Director, and to students in DTU as interim Vice Chancellor.